The wonder plants

Dr Jamal Anwar

PEOPLE have recognised the medical value of plants for thousands of years. In the Vedas, which stretch back more than five thousand years, it is mentioned that spices are not only an integral part of culture but also invaluable to cure for every ailment known to man. Even though our earliest ancestors may not have understood how or why certain plants cured specific ailments, they were well aware that plants heal as well nourish. In developing countries today majority of the population relies on herbal drugs. About two thousand plants are used medically in the Indian subcontinent, while three-quarters of the population in China still uses herbal medicine. Before synthetic chemicals dominated medicine, as they do today, roughly 80 per cent of all drugs were derived from plant materials. Chemists eventually developed synthetic version of many drugs, but these man-made products might never have come about without nature leading the way. There are many unknown wild tropical plants of our botanical heritage not yet discovered and many potential cures.

Neem Azadirachta indica

Azad dhirakat in Persian means "excellent Tree, noble Tree" referring to the usefulness and the considerable economic importance of the genus. Locally named in Bangladesh as neem, in India as nimba, nimuri etc, in Nepal as nim, in Tibet as nim-pa, it is traditionally used to make medicine and pesticides. Professor Heinrich Schmutterer of Department of Phytopathology and Entomology, who has been working for thirty years on neem tree, said, "Neem is the one of the most fascinating trees of the world."

The use of Neem in Bangladesh has been dramatically reduced due to destruction of the trees and emergence of chemical industries. Most areas in the country was originally forested with coastal mangroves backed by swamp forests and a broad plain of tropical moist deciduous forest (IUCN, 1987). After deforestation the Asian Development Bank-funded aforestation programme selected exotic species from abroad like Eucalytus sp., Dalibergia sisso, Leucaena leucocephla, Swiietnia macrophulla, and Leucocedha switternia which grow faster than local natural tress depleting soil and environment. Unfortunately, neem was not included in the list. About one hundred year ago neem plant was imported to Africa, where other plants die because of locus/insects attacks. I have seen in Sudan only neem tree survived, whereas other trees perished. Neem tree can easily grow in sandy soils of coastal area of Bangladesh.

Leaf, bark, seed and all part of Neem tree contain useful substances that can be taken as tee, oil and prepared medicine remedy dust allergy, fever, skin diseases, rheumatism etc (Roemmming, 1999, Natur). Professor Heinz Rembold of famous Max-Planck Institute of Biochemistry, Germany found no side effects of neem on human and soils do not contain any hazardous substance as a residue after it is used as pesticides. In ancient Sanskrit literature (1500 BC) neem is regarded as life saving and disease preventive plant.

Neem seed

Neem has more than 60 valuable compounds. Over 2000 years that neem-based pesticides have been used in India, many complex processes were developed to make them available for specific use (CSE, India, 2000). Azadirachtin A is the most important bio-pesticide. There are four important components that make neem seed the king of the bio-pesticide that prevent and kill more than 400 harmful insects, nematode, fungus, bacteria and virus: azadirachtin, meliantriol, salannin and nimbin. If the insects eat treated plant, the Neem substances transfer drastically important life cycle of the insect. A rapid interruption occurs in metabolism, growth and hormone system of the insect that the insects can further reproduce. Another advantage is that the insects do not develop resistance.

A neem plant gives about 20-30 kg of seeds. The crushed seeds in water can be used as a powerful pesticide. Since the method has to be repeated, a farmer requires two to three trees for his plants.

Neem oil

Neem oil is an important export item from India Cold pressed oil by traditional grinding method contains most of the useful and biological active ingredients. The oil contains glyceriden, linol acid, limonoide, etc. One kilogram of dry seed produces about 100ml oil. The oil constitutes antiseptic and many medical properties that can be use as ointment, furniture varnish, shampoo and cosmetic articles. The neem oil has been successfully used by the scientists in the industrial countries to remove different plant diseases.

Neem leaf

Dry neem leaves in rice and lentils keep away insects and fungicides. It is a traditional wisdom but no longer used. Many dangerous pesticides are used for conservation of food products. Neem leaf extract shows an extraordinary reaction against dangerous fungus (Aspergillus flavus). It stops producing aflatoxin (one of the most dangerous cancer producing substance).

Neem bark

Neem bark also contains antiseptic properties. Branches are used as tooth brash in the villages. Scientific investigations in Europe have shown that toothpaste prepared from powdered neem bark has high value for preventive and curative dental treatment. Neem toothpaste is also getting popular in Europe.

Rediscover traditional wisdom

Neem is used for curing skin diseases, muscular pain, nail fungus and many other uses. Unfortunately, use of neem has decreased dramatically in Bangladesh.

Lucien Biggeault, president of the French Support Committee to GK, writes: "During my last visit in February (2001), we attended the closing party of a training session on organic home gardening organised in Cox's Bazar by a dozen NGOs under the umbrella of Care. GK had four agriculturists and one agronomist attending this session. I have seen their display and training material and I was surprised to see how good it was on locally made pesticide from neem leaves and others, protection of certain insects to fight other bad insects, use of home made compost, etc...."

Research conducted by, among others, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has shown that Azadirachtin A offers protection against more than 130 insects, while it is partly active against more than 70 other insects. Since the potential value neem-based pesticides was recognised, commercial interests have been increased. Suddenly there is spurt of patent applications from scientists and companies - predominantly from industrialised countries - on neem-related products and processes.

While in our country we import hazardous pesticides and do not fully appreciate the use of neem, the industrial countries are using our traditional wisdom that we have inherited over thousands of years.

The US/Grace patent no. 0436257, granted in 1994, concerns a "hydrophobic extracted neem oil - a novel fungicide" from neem seed that exhibits the ability to control various fungi. The legal opposition to this patent was lodged by the New Delhi-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (RFSTE), in co-operation with the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) and Magda Aelvoet, a former green member of the European Parliament (MEP), who is currently the environmental minister of Belgium. The petition filed had categorically stated that "the US/Grace patent did not satisfy the basic requirements for a patent".

In 1995, a coalition of NGOS from 40 countries was established to protest Grace's 1992 patent. The petition was filed primarily on the following grounds: biological resources are common heritage and are not to be patented; a patent will restrict the availability of living material to local people, whose ancestors have developed the material through centuries; and a patent may block economic growth in developing countries.

The coalition of NGOs fear that if this neem patent is allowed to stand it would mean that the indigenous population around the world will not be able to freely use many of the biological resources that have been developed and nurtured by them over hundreds of years.

Fighting bio-piracy Green MEP Hiltrud Breyer points out: "This action illustrates how the patent system is being abused by multinational companies (MNCS). Genetic resources that are freely available to the South are being expropriated without reward or recognition for their traditional custodians. This is bio-piracy at its crudest."

Turmeric (Curcuma long)

To most Indians and Bengalis, turmeric is part of growing up, a magic cure-all for the excesses of childhood. A classic "grand mother's remedy', the virulent yellow powder or paste has been applied to scrapes and cuts of generations of children (A. Agarwal and S. Narain, 1996).

Turmeric is not only the most important spice in curry, but also has medical use. Used as a stimulant in native medicine, it is often administered in disorder of the blood. Its use as an external applicant in bruises, leach bites, etc is perhaps the most frequent medical application. Turmeric has been prescribed as a wound-healing agent in 200-year-old Ayurvedic scripture. It is also effective in increasing immune system, treating musculo-skeletal disease, detecting cyanide adulterated food products, colouring process and composition for food and beverages; conserving food (fish, meat, cooked food), improving intestinal haemorrhage and bowel function, reducing fatty compounds, etc.

Now about 12 patents have been registered in the United States, although turmeric has long been used in India as a traditional medicine for treatment of various sprains and inflammatory conditions (Indian Journal of Medical Research, 1982). A lack of regulations is allowing foreign scientists to claim exclusive ownership of traditional medicine that we have used for centuries.

We are fortunate to have neem and haldi but forgetting traditional wisdom. Use of pesticides and artificial chemicals has dangerous effects on our health and environment. At many places of the country, rice, lentils, dry fish and wood, etc are conserved through application of hazardous pesticides, whereas our wonderful plants can solve these problems at a very low cost without adversely affecting the environment

Source: The Daily Star, Dhaka, August 3, 2001


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